Enemy Territory: Without Longoria Can the Rays Keep Division Lead?

The first place Tampa Bay Rays were dealt a major blow this week when all-star and franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria went down with a hamstring tear and subsequently winding up on the disabled-list for 6-8 weeks.  Longoria was off to a blazing start with an offensive line of  .329/.433/.561 line and 19 RBI in 23 games and according to some was looking like an early MVP candidate.  Now the Rays will have to get by without their stellar third baseman for possibly two months and the question now becomes, can the Rays maintain their lead in the AL East without Evan Longoria?

Matthew Pouliot of Hardballtalk.com looks at defensive replacements for Longoria.  Both Jeff Keppinger and Elliot Johnson are options but as Pouliot points out, neither bring a stable presence at the plate.  One option that is presented is to move Sean Rodriguez to third and call up Reid Brignac, but Pouliot is quick to state that it appears Brignac will stay at AAA.  Will Rhymes is the front runner to replace Longoria according to Pouliot and even the former Tiger can’t measure up to a tenth of the production that will be missing with the injury to Longoria.

From a pure offensive standpoint, the Rays have done a decent job producing runs through the first month of the season.  Keep in mind Longoria was the jugular vein in the lineup and replacing him will be like trying to replace Jacoby Ellsbury; it just can’t be done.

So what options do they have?  Newly signed Hideki Matsui could be thrown into the fire a lot sooner than anyone predicted and if he can regain his run producing abilities, the former Yankee may help replace some of those runs.  The obvious players to pick up the slack are both Carlos Pena and Luke Scott.  Both were brought to Tampa this winter to bolster the offense around Longoria and now they will be relied upon to carry the load.  Scott is off to a nice start with 5 homers and 17 RBI and a SLG of .594.  Pena meanwhile has 4 homers with 13 RBI and a SLG of .488, certainly a slower start than anticipated but still respectable.

Ben Zobrist is another name that we’ll hear a lot about in the coming weeks.  He’s often described as having sneaky power and was pegged as a major offensive catalyst for this team in 2012 but with just 3 homers and 11 RBI, saddled with a weak batting average of .205, he needs to get hot in a hurry.

Others like B.J Upton when healthy and Desmond Jennings will need to use their speed on the basepaths to create scoring opportunities while taking some pressure off the middle of the order.

Of course the Rays will ride their starting pitching for a vast majority of their wins this season and in Longoria’s absence this will only be heightened.  But now with their biggest bat gone for an extended period of time, relying this much on their five horses might be just too much to ask for.  The result could be a slip in the standings until #3 returns, but should stay within striking distance of the division lead.

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Tags: Ben Zobrist Boston Red Sox Carlos Pena Desmond Jennings Elliot Johnson Evan Longoria Hideki Matsui Jacoby Ellsbury Jeff Keppinger Luke Scott Reid Brignac Tampa Bay Rays

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